Understanding The Intimacy Avoidance Marriage

Revised 1/4/20

Intimacy Avoidance is a concept that might seem confusing. We pretty much accept the fact that being human means being normatively wired to seek and maintain community and connection. How can there be such a thing as an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage? After all, isn’t bonding with a life partner essential to the continued existence of our species?

intimacy-avoidant-marriage

Sadly,  sufferers of intimacy avoidance might want love… but some actually fear intimacy more.

They are, for numerous and diverse reasons, uncomfortable with the kinds of human closeness that help us to self-soothe, regulate our emotions, or feel connected with an intimate partner.

While some may avoid close relationships entirely, some intimacy avoidants do occasionally have friendships, love affairs, and even marry.

Frequently these marriages seem to start well. An intense emotional or sexual attraction leads to a felt (but superficial) bond.

But eventually, the Intimacy Avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored or smothered, or confused, and they may initiate a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new spouse’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally.

Or they may desire intimacy but are completely bewildered and confused by what their partner expects of them.

It is essential in working with an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage for the couples therapist to carefully unpack the complaining spouse’s narrative. Despite what you may have read elsewhere on the internet, The notion of Intimacy Avoidance is not simple, but many therapists do tend to over-simplify this issue.

If the Intimacy Avoidance Marriage Breaks Up

If the Intimacy Avoidance Marriage breakup, the avoidant partner may continue to socialize but frequently loses any desire to date, and for any sexual intimacy. Intimacy Avoidants often drift from one doomed relationship to another or avoid romantic and sexual relationships periodically— typically for a limited time (weeks, months, or years). And some Intimacy Avoidants are content to swear off relationships forever.

Intimacy Avoidance is sometimes related to early childhood trauma (physical neglect, emotional rejection, or other forms of mistreatment), all of which become the foundation of their difficulties with intimacy in later adulthood. Rather than experiencing strong bonding, children who are neglected or abused “learn” that affection is conditional, abusive, absent, or overpowering.

They also learn (on an emotional level) that to get too close is to get hurt, and so it’s best to flee from these feelings.  As an adult, the Intimacy Avoidant usually doesn’t connect the dots between their early life experiences and current adult disappointments.

However, Intimacy Avoidance may also be related to adult-onset PTSD, a personality disorder, and missed most often…a neurodivergent partner usually the husband) who is otherwise high-functioning, but on the autism spectrum.

Here are some examples of intimacy avoidant behaviors:

  • The eternal bachelor. He has many friends but rarely engages in serious dating or courtship.
  • The workaholic who habitually subordinates their intimate partner to the margin of their attention.
  • The soccer mom or football dad who compulsively lives a “kid-centric” lifestyle, neglecting the needs of their spouse.
  • The serial dater who drops partners as intimacy expectations rise.
  • The couple that is more enthralled with technology and entertainment than they are with each other.
  • The emotionally abusive partner uses displays of anger and criticism to push their partner away.

Help for Intimacy Avoidance

Attachment styles established in childhood are not cast in stone. Through therapy, and the deliberate pursuit of healthy relationships, intimacy avoidants can build a sense of what Robert Weiss describes as “earned security.”

Therapy helps some Intimacy Avoidants to transcend their early childhood programming and acquire the necessary skills essential for authentic intimacy and lasting emotional bonds.

Couples therapy for an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage often begins with identifying and addressing co-morbid mental health problems, such as depression, addictions, anxiety, personality disorders, or alexithymia.

Treating The Intimacy Avoidant Marriage Requires Exploring the Family of Origin

I’m annoyed with how many therapy bloggers simplify the notion of Intimacy Avoidance as an act of belligerent withholding. The word “narcissism” also gets tossed around a lot. This is shallow, simplistic thinking at it’s worst.

Self-protection is not the same as narcissism. Many intimacy avoidants come by their fear of intimacy honestly, and to brand them all as selfish narcissists is as unwise as it is unkind.

intimacy avoidant marriageIntimacy avoidance is difficult to discuss in blogs because it is complicated. It’s a catch-all term.

While I agree that some intimacy avoidants might have personality disorders, many suffer from untreated PTSD or Developmental Trauma.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s typical to see an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage also contains elements of Depression, Anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and trauma.

Another issue that frequently labeled as Intimacy Avoidance is how neurodivergent men on the spectrum struggle in marriage.

These men are typically misdiagnosed as narcissists. It takes specialized training to recognize husbands that are neurologically on the spectrum. Unfortunately, 99.99% of couples therapists have not invested in this training. And as a result, when they are treating an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage with a husband on the spectrum, they often make the marital situation worse.

Because we are often the last resort, It’s been our experience that neurodivergent husbands are a significant population of the Intimacy Avoidant Marriages that we see. Most couples therapists miss Aspergers.

Any and all co-existing conditions must be carefully assessed, identified, and addressed alongside couples therapy for the Intimacy Avoidant Marriage. Each case is different.  And sometimes, individual therapy is also needed.

The Importance of Family History

This work usually involves a gentle probing of early attachment history, as well as psycho-education on the connection between their emotional deficits and difficulties they are experiencing in later adulthood. Establishing a safe therapeutic bond is essential in treating Intimacy Avoidance.

The Intimacy Avoidant Marriage begins to improve as the Intimacy Avoidant Spouse achieves some degree of success in regulating their anxiety. Developing self-awareness of how (and why), they act the way they do is critical.

Not all Intimacy Avoidants are alike. And not all Intimacy Avoidant Marriages are the same either. For some, intimacy avoidance therapy is multi-modal; involving a combination of cognitive restructuring, developing increased social skills, group therapy, social learning, and perhaps even medication.

On the surface, Intimacy Avoidance may not appear as a severe problem. To varying degrees, we accept that most American men have been socialized to avoid strong emotions. But in the Intimacy Avoidant Marriage, this problem looms larger as the couple moves through time together.

An Intimacy Avoidant Marriage casts a long inter-generational shadow. It negatively impacts the overall quality of life for both partners and their children as well. With treatment, a person suffering from Intimacy Avoidance can realize a deeper capacity for joy and connection, and overcome the deficits from their emotionally impoverished childhood.

Do You Have an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage?

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Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. My Avoidant Attachment Disorder manifests itself as intimacy anxiety which is turn causes me to suffer from severe sexual dysfunctions whenever a relationship starts getting serious. The first few sexual encounters with any given woman are usually fine performance-wise. However at some point within a few weeks of a relationship I suddenly lose all desire shutting down my ability to either ejaculate with a partner or to get and hold an erection.

    For decades I thought I was simply easily bored sexually so when the dysfunctions would start I would break off the relationship and move on to another and the whole situation would repeat itself. It wasn’t until after putting off marriage until I was in my 40’s I finally wed and the sexual dysfunctions started on the wedding night and never improved making the marriage both unconsummated. My wife and I spent a few years going from Therapist to Therapist but they all insisted on treating the symptoms (The inhibited ejaculation and E.D.) putting us both through a tortuous and unpleasant series of “Homework Exercises” including Sensate Focus which was the final straw for my wife who blamed herself for my total inability to perform sexually.

    In my 50’s I finally went to a Psychiatrist who suggested family trauma as a child of alcoholics was causing these anxiety related sexual problems but he was unable to take it farther than that and my marriage is still sexless 20 years later. He also mentioned I was suffering from a “Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Disorder” but at the time I had no idea what he was talking about until years later when I came across this article which, unlike anything else I have read about male sexual disorders and DAAD describes me to a “T”

  2. One of the most profound influences on the way we behave in relationships is our early attachment patterns. As children, the attachment patterns we formed were based on adaptations we made in order to feel secure in our environment. The ways we were cared for and related to by our parents or primary caretakers led us to develop an “internal working model” of how others are likely to react to us and how we should react to have our needs met.

    If we had parents who were emotionally available and attuned to us, we most likely formed a secure attachment. However, if we had a parent who was emotionally or physically rejecting, absent, or inattentive to our needs, we may have formed an avoidant attachment pattern in which we felt like we had to take care of ourselves.

    In this case, we may have found that the best way to get our needs met was to act like we didn’t have any. We may even have disconnected from our own awareness of our needs. If we had a parent who sometimes met our needs but other times was intrusive or emotionally draining by acting out of their own need, we may have formed an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern in which we became confused and preoccupied. We may have had to cling or seek reassurance, fearing our needs would not get met.

    As we grow up, these early attachment patterns may become models for how we expect relationships to work throughout our lives. The behaviors and defenses we formed as a result of these childhood dynamics sometimes go on to influence us in our relationships. People who experienced an avoidant attachment with a parent will likely go on to form a dismissive attachment pattern in their adult romantic relationship. A person with an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern as a child will be prone to form a preoccupied attachment.

    Many people are curious about which attachment category applies to them along with the psychological defenses they’ve formed that interfere with their relationships. But before we get into how each of these attachment patterns manifest themselves in a relationship, it’s important to note that we aren’t always right about identifying which category of attachment best applies to us and our relationships.

    In this article, I’ll try to illuminate what dismissive and preoccupied attachment styles look like, but also why it’s challenging for people to correctly determine their attachment pattern. This process is beneficial because if a person can accurately identify their pattern, they can start to take steps to form more secure attachments, challenge their defensive adaptations, and enjoy closer, more satisfying relationships.

    Dismissive Attachment

    When a child experiences an avoidant attachment pattern, they develop a tendency to feel pseudo-independent. They learned to take care of themselves or self-parent. Their early environment triggered them to disconnect from their needs because it felt painful or shameful to experience them when expressing them led to no response.

    As adults, these individuals maintain a sense of disconnection to protect themselves from painful emotions. They even denigrate others for having needs. As a result, they may feel blank or directionless in relation to their wants. Their desires feel problematic or uncomfortable, because of the shame they would feel to not have their wants fulfilled or their needs met.

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    People with a dismissive attachment pattern tend to be the “distancer” in their relationship. They may be more emotionally unavailable or even seek isolation. Their partners may complain that they are not there for them or interested in meeting their wants or needs. This is in large part because a dismissively attached individual has learned to be self-contained. Since they’ve learned to shield their own wants and needs from others, they have trouble understanding when someone else wants or needs something from them.

    People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment tend to be more inward and deny the importance of being close to someone else. They may be psychologically defended and easily inclined to shut down emotionally. They may also struggle to understand or identify the emotional needs of others and themselves.

    Some people find it easy to label their partner as having a dismissive attachment pattern, however, it’s not always easy to see this pattern in yourself. For instance, when someone with a dismissive attachment pattern feels a need, they often assume they’re being too needy instead of realizing that this is a basic human response. In addition, they may feel aloof or like the distancer when they’re being pursued by their partner, but if they feel rejected, they may feel extremely anxious. They may be a distancer in their relationship, but when their partner pulls away, they become insecure and start to pursue.

    Babies who were identified as having an avoidant attachment style often showed little outward reaction to a parent’s absence, however, a heart monitor revealed an elevated heart rate as a marker of their anxiety. Similarly, an adult with a dismissive attachment still experiences anxiety and still wants security, but their learned mode of relating is clouding their natural desire and tolerance for closeness. They feel unclear about what they want and need from others, and they are afraid of the unbearable shame of not feeling important enough to attend to. Because of this confusion, they may incorrectly identify their attachment pattern as anxious.

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    Preoccupied Attachment

    A person with a preoccupied attachment is often seen as the “pursuer” in a relationship. They may feel like they need to make an active effort to get what they want and therefore, can sometimes engage in behavior patterns that seem clingy, controlling, or intrusive. Because they’re used to not having their needs met consistently or in an attuned or sensitive manner, they may often feel insecure, jealous, or nervous about the state of their relationship. They may have a tendency to look to their partner to “rescue” or “complete” them.

    An anxiously attached person assumes they want closeness but engages in patterns that actually leave a certain amount of emotional turmoil and distance. Although they may perceive themselves as feeling real love toward their partner, they may actually be experiencing emotional hunger. Their actions, which are often based on desperation or insecurity, exacerbate their own fears of distance or rejection. When their partner does come closer or gives them what they want, they may react in unconscious ways that push their partner away or create distance. They may find that their true tolerance for intimacy is much smaller than they thought because real love and closeness would challenge their core beliefs about themselves and relationships. Therefore, while they may believe they want security, they actually feel compelled to remain in a state of anxiety.

    In general, an insecure attachment pattern on either side of the spectrum can leave us with skewed ideas about ourselves, about how others are likely to treat us and how much love and care we deserve. A dismissive person may believe they need more space, while a preoccupied person may think they need more closeness. In reality, most of us maintain a fundamental belief that we are unworthy or incapable of getting the love we want and need, and we form core defenses that uphold that belief. If we can be open to knowing our attachment pattern and learning the behaviors that get in the way of having the love we say we want, we can start to forge a path toward security and form healthier, more rewarding long-term relationships. We can challenge our old way of thinking about ourselves and begin to internalize a new image of ourselves as lovable and worthy of love.

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    4COMMENTS
    Self Recon
    Submitted by TheTrueTrue on December 2, 2018 – 7:43pm
    Thanks for this article. Ive been on a search to figure out why I’m the way I am and why people respond to me the way they do for some time. The only thing present for all those experiences is myself and the search for myself has led me to all different types of things. The anxious-avoidant articles, codependent articles, mbti, pinterest, lol Dismissive sounds more like it unfortunately. The irony of it is while you feel like you are advocating for what you need, feeding that emotional hunger, it appears to be controlling to the receiver or other attachment styles. My ex was the former and Im the later form of attachmebnt according to this article and we couldnt help eachother at all. Now Im dating someone who has a normal attachment to others. Ideal fam life from childhood into the present and I feel like I coukd likely push him away while I feel like Im brining him closer to me. I feel sorrowful in a way because I dont know the first step to fixing me for me…which I imagine woukd indirectly positively affect anyone around me, including the bf. Where are those articles at? The, dismissive attached person’s not so anonymous, anonymous. A girl can drean right?!

    Book for attachment styles
    Submitted by Adrian Villalobos-Moreno on October 29, 2019 – 4:43pm
    Try “Attached” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller‎

    I have read it and it offers a lot of insight on attachment styles. You may also want to look at forgiveness. The practice of knowing how to forgive ourselves for not knowing better, as well as others when they hurt apparently goes a long way. I just recently started to learn forgiveness because I didn’t grow knowing or being taught about. I know this book will help. It has me. Good luck on your inner journey.

    Proving it’s difficult to know…
    Submitted by anon on June 2, 2019 – 6:47pm
    Yeah, I agree it’s difficult to know which camp you fall in. I first empathised with the avoidant then recognised myself in the preoccupied’s desire for greater closeness (but not the behaviour). I think at the end of the day, we’re all individuals and probably have a mix of stuff going on. I tend to hide behind positive or neutral emotions, have difficulty accessing anger (and often mistake it for anxiety), automatically deactivate and calm down when other people get heated (but it’s because I think there needs to be one calm person around or we’ll never get to the bottom of this!), and have great difficulty understanding my own needs, noticing my own emotions, knowing when I’m being mistreated etc. etc. etc.

    But I’m also always the person who ‘fixes’ the relationship, puts my needs aside for theirs, puts more effort in than they do etc. which sounds preoccupied. I always end up the ‘mother’ to my bfs and over time they become so child-like that I am stuck in a kind of limbo where I care so much about them I don’t want to leave but have lost all romantic interest, so want to leave. I seem to get perpetually stuck in this “pain either way” limbo.

    It took me almost 25 years of suffering with sexual dysfunctions, intimacy anxiety and a lot of stress and pain, plus visits to many therapists over the years to finally get an answer why I can only function sexually with strangers, paid sex and one night stands. Any kind of ongoing intimate relationship with a woman causes me to be unable to perform sexually. Most therapists threw in the towel unable to help but when I switched from sex therapists to a psychiatrist he explained that I had an avoidant attachment disorder due to childhood abuse which in turn would cause severe intimacy anxiety which shut down my ability to get an erection or ejaculate (inhibited ejaculation) Unfortunately there is no cure and my 20 year marriage has been sexless from the beginning because of this. I want intimacy but by body doesn’t.

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  3. “But eventually, the intimacy avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored, or smothered, and then initiates a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new partner’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally”

    For years I have been trying to find out what causes me to lose desire for a woman after one or two sexual encounters. This quote from you article caught my eye because of the word “boredom” I never felt any anticipatory anxiety or any anxiety before or during sex even when my body would suddenly shut down and I would no longer be able to perform. What I thought it was, and what I told myself it was in the 15 years I dated and after marrying was that I was simply bored sexually very easily. This explanation made perfect sense because that’s exactly how I felt- sexually bored. When this would happen I would break off the relationship and start another just to have it start all over again. But when I started researching the probable being “bored” as a cause of sexual dysfunction, especially at the beginning of a new relationship was never mentioned anywhere. Now I know what it is- some kind of subconscious anxiety that shuts me down sexually. I went to a number of Sex Therapists and anxiety was never even mentioned. Too bad This problem has made my life miserable and caused my 30 year marriage to be sexless.

  4. “But eventually, the intimacy avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored, or smothered, and then initiates a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new partner’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally” Wow in all the years I have been trying to find out why my relationships start out fine but then, after a few sexual encounters I suddenly lose all desire and my ability to function sexually with the women. I married in my late 30’s but dated 15 years before that and although I felt very attracted to the women I dated the relationship would only last a few weeks at most and then I would want out. My marriage has been sexually troubled from the beginning and for decades we have lived as room mates. I never knew it was all caused by anxiety until recently. Thank you for this great article.

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